The way Ron Unz tells it, the “direct inspiration” for his proposed ballot initiative to dismantle bilingual education in California public schools was a 1996 boycott of a Los Angeles elementary school by a group of angry immigrant Latino parents.
In a television appearance last September, for instance, Unz said the parents’ unhappiness with their school’s bilingual program “really opened my eyes” to the current state of bilingual education in California, “where the statistics are dreadful.”
But four years ago, during his failed bid against Gov. Pete Wilson for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur already had bilingual education in his cross hairs.
“The poisonous brew of bilingual education, multiculturalism and other ethnic-separatism policies . . . threatens to destroy the tradition of American assimilation,” Unz said at the time.
As he campaigns for his ballot initiative, Unz has steadfastly cast the measure as a fight against a failed educational program that has crippled thousands of immigrant children.
In doing so, he has largely avoided discussing what he acknowledges is a long-held disdain for multiculturalism and a more incendiary debate about his desire to protect “a common, unifying American culture.”
“Immigrants — Latino immigrants, Asian immigrants, other immigrants in California today — are in general a positive force in our society, just like past generations of immigrants were,” the 36-year-old Unz said in a recent interview in the Spartan office of his Palo Alto software firm, Wall Street Analytics Inc.
“But the reason past generations of immigrants succeeded in our society, and the reason they were a positive force, is because of the traditional American emphasis on assimilationism. And I think that’s the direction we have to return.”
His belief in immigrants’ value to society, he said, drew him into the GOP primary against Wilson in 1994 and later that year to actively oppose Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration measure that Wilson rode to a come-from-behind re-election win.
But unlike his 1994 primary effort, political observers today say Unz has employed a sophisticated political strategy in advancing his English-immersion proposal, which has received strong voter support — Latino and otherwise — in early polls.
In framing the measure as a civil rights cause undertaken on behalf of Latino immigrant parents and their children, Unz doesn’t need to rail against what he considers the “ethnic separatists” engaged in a cultural war, they said.
“Had he gone into this as another bomb-throwing exercise, the (bilingual) initiative would have run into real problems,” said Dan Schnur, a GOP media consultant and former Wilson campaign spokesman in 1994. “This could have been and still might be a very racially charged debate, but he has gone to great lengths to keep that from happening.”
Unz “has done a phenomenal job” thus far of framing the campaign debate on his terms, successfully engaging in “very careful political outreach and coalition building,” Schnur said. For instance, Unz convinced famed Latino teacher Jaime Escalante to serve as his honorary chairman.
But some critics say Unz’s arguments, upon closer inspection, mimic the rhetoric of the “English Only” movement, which arose in recent years in response to increased immigration into the United States. His ballot initiative declares that “the English language is the national public language of the United States of America and the state of California.”
“Basically, it’s the same rhetoric that you have heard from the English Only movement in the past 10 years,” said Jim Crawford, former Washington editor of Education Week. “. . . That’s where he’s coming from.”
That Ron Keeva Unz finds himself as the conservative leader of a major California debate is no surprise to those who watched him grow up as a brilliant science scholar with a love for history and exploring ideas.
Born Sept. 20, 1961, in Los Angeles, he was raised as an only child in a single-parent household he shared with his grandparents, Jewish emigrants from Ukraine. He embarked on a stellar academic career after attending the honors program at Walter Reed Junior High School in North Hollywood, a school that offered advanced instruction in math, science, history and English.
As a high school senior, he won first place nationwide in the 38th annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He went on to attend Harvard University, where he obtained a double major, earning degrees in theoretical physics and ancient history.
Then came a stint as the Winston Churchill Fellow at Cambridge University, where he studied quantum gravitation under famed author Stephen Hawking. Unz later entered the doctoral program in theoretical physics at Stanford University.
His aunt, Rivko Knox,former president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said Unz “read tons of history as a kid.”
“To be honest, his hobbies are ideas,” Knox said. “. . . What does he spend his money on but ideas that he cares about? His house has never been furnished. He has a bedroom set, and two chairs and a table in the kitchen and that’s it.”
When it comes to food and clothes, Unz is just as frugal. He currently owns two suits, holdovers from the three he bought for the 1994 primary campaign.
“I normally eat at Burger King or Round Table Pizza. And sometimes when I really want fast food, I pick up a hot dog at 7-11,” said Unz, who has spent more than $500,000 of his own money on the initiative campaign.
His journey to become a millionaire software developer started in the summer of 1987 when he got a summer job on Wall Street with First Boston Corp.
“I ended up writing some software for them over the summer that made them a lot of money,” Unz recalled. “What should have been a two- or three-month summer job now has gone on for 10 1/2 years.”
Today, Unz said his software firm employs between 15 and 20 people and has annual revenues that top several million dollars. New York also proved critical to the formation of his political views. It was there, he said, that he saw America’s melting pot flourish and, at the same time, America fraying at the edges racially.
Unz lived in Jackson Heights in Queens, which happened to be one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. “I’ve always been pro-immigrant because of my background, but Jackson Heights just reconfirmed it in very strong terms,” he said.
Yet at the same time, Unz said, all was not well in New York. “I just was so disheartened by what was happening, the crime I was seeing in New York, plus the rising tide, again, of what I would call ethnic separatism and anti-assimilationism.”
Unz at one point came across an article on Jackson Heights and immigrants in the New Republic, prompting him to call the author with an offer to finance a book on immigration and assimilation. The result was a book titled “Assimilation, American Style,” published last year.
Unz also became a contributor to public policy think tanks that shared his assimilationist and free-market views, including the Manhattan Institute and later the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles.
Unz said he eventually began to think that in the long term, policies such as bilingual education and affirmative action and ideas like multiculturalism would “probably cause a tremendous backlash against immigration down the road.”
By the early 1990s, Unz saw that backlash develop in his native California, to which he had returned.
In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal in May 1994, Unz wrote that “the three most anti-immigrant groups in American society are blacks, union members and environmentalists, and these are the three core constituencies of the Democratic Party.”
The anti-immigrant views of liberal Democrats, Unz argued, provided “the necessary political cover for conservatives to redirect their anti-welfare sentiments against immigration instead.”
He feared that Asian Americans and Latinos would become alienated >from both major political parties as Democratic and Republican politicians moved to ride “what they see as an irresistible tide of anti-immigrant sentiment.”
“The whole reason I ran against Wilson was the immigration issue,” Unz said. “I just felt he was doing tremendous damage to California and to the Republican Party by his immigrant bashing.
“If you start setting in motion a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment,” he added, “you could see a situation where the state would be very sharply polarized between immigrants and non-immigrants. That isn’t a good thing.”
Sean Walsh, Wilson’s press secretary, dismissed Unz’s criticism of the governor as inaccurate, “simplistic charges” that ignore Wilson’s support for legal immigration but opposition to illegal immigration.
“Mr. Unz is trying to make the governor the bogeyman,” Walsh added. “He was confused in the 1994 campaign and he seems to be even more confused today.”
Because of his opposition to Proposition 187, Unz had the “bona fides to get away with” pushing an anti-bilingual education measure today, said Gregory Rodriguez, a research fellow at Pepperdine University.
Nonetheless, Rodriguez said, if Unz is “going after bilingual education to root out multiculturalism, he’s looking in the wrong place.”
Rodriguez said that the marketplace is more responsible for increasing multiculturalism than bilingual education programs.
“Bank of America has more to do with people speaking Spanish than our public education system,” Rodriguez said.